“Get going. Move forward. Aim High. Plan a takeoff. Don’t just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won’t happen. Change your attitude and gain some altitude. Believe me, you’ll love it up here.”
“What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”
“The most important thing in life is to love what you’re doing, because that’s the only way you’ll ever be really good at it.”
Career development practitioners often make an implicit deal with clients and students. If you work hard, manage your career carefully, stay resilient and follow your passions, you will ultimately get what you want from life. The inspirational quotes above capture this perspective and are the kind of thing that we often put into a presentation or even on a poster on our wall.
The problem with this story is that it isn’t true. Or at least that it isn’t true for everyone equally. The quotes above are all taken from Donald Trump and describe reality as he sees it. For someone like Trump, it is possible to believe that all you need is passion, motivation and resilience. After all, this approach has helped him become the most powerful man in the world. But Trump also began life as a (very) rich, white, able-bodied, heterosexual man in the most powerful country in the world. It is noticeable that his quotes about what you need to have a successful career rarely acknowledge any of these factors.
Consider an alternative case study of Concordia University student Nadine Uwimana. She was born in Rwanda in the middle of the 1994 genocide, in which her whole family was killed. Uwimana later emigrated to Canada, where she struggled both financially and emotionally until she made friends with an older Canadian woman who helped her to establish her life in Canada. Like Trump, Uwimana’s career has been shaped by the circumstances of her birth. Unlike Trump, she is unable to ignore these and pretend all her achievements are hers alone.
“If we ignore opportunity structures, we run the risk of telling people that if their career doesn’t work out, they are to blame.”
Our careers are the intersection of our personal attributes and the social world. Sociologists talk about the idea of ‘opportunity structures,’ arguing that the opportunities that are open to us are shaped by social structures. Trump and Uwimana experienced very different opportunity structures. What was easy for Trump – getting a good education, having enough money to eat, feeling safe and secure – required enormous struggle for Uwimana.
The risks of ignoring opportunity structures
There is a danger that if, as career development professionals, we don’t recognize these opportunity structures, we will be unable to provide good career development assistance. If we imagine career as the realization of aspiration rather than as a struggle within opportunity structures, we misrepresent how it works. So, be very skeptical about ‘inspirational quotes’ that come from wealthy men as they probably offer very few insights that are useful for most people. The career experience of the very rich is highly unusual and one of the worst things that we can do is pretend that it is normal.
If we ignore opportunity structures, we run the risk of telling people that if their career doesn’t work out, they are to blame. The philosopher Michel Foucault describes this as ‘responsibilization’ and argues that it is a key strategy that the powerful use to convince the less powerful that everything bad that happens to them is their fault. He argues that this is a deliberate strategy to misdirect blame away from the rich, the powerful and social systems.
I have been working with Rie Thomsen and Ronald Sultana on two books (Career Guidance for Social Justice and Career Guidance for Emancipation), in which we have tried to think about what career development professionals can do about all of these difficult issues. We argue that the way the world is organized is not fixed, but rather something that is always changing and being made in the interests of different groups within society. As people pursue their careers, they are both affected by opportunity structures and influence their development.
The role of career professionals
In such an unfair, unequal world, career development practitioners need to recognize inequality, draw attention to it and help people negotiate it. We recognize that career development is only a drop in the ocean and that it alone can’t change society. But it can help people better understand their life and think about what do with it. This process of analysis and action is simultaneously a personal and a political act.
To help practitioners to think about how they can operationalize these ideas about social justice, we have proposed five signposts toward an emancipatory career guidance:
- Building critical consciousness. Build your clients’ critical understanding of the world. Listen to their story and help them to understand how it links to wider social and political structures.
- Naming oppression. Sometimes just the process of giving something a name can be helpful for people. Where you hear about racism, sexism, bullying and exploitation, help your client or student see what is going on.
- Questioning what is normal. When we are in any situation it can be easy to assume that it is normal and the only way things can work. By telling people that not all bosses bully you, not all jobs require you to work weekends and so on, you can provide people with new perspectives on their life. A very important question is: in whose interest is it that things work in this way?
- Encouraging people to work together. We pursue our careers alongside others, in organizations and with support from our families and friends. Career development conversations should always consider how we can work together to improve our careers rather than how we can outperform others. Moving away from an individualistic perspective to recognize the role of family, friends, colleagues, communities, trade unions and professional associations opens up a raft of career development strategies.
- Working at a range of levels. Career is at once personal and political, and our work with clients needs to acknowledge this. We might simultaneously advise a student on how to complete a university application, advocate to the school that they should be given more support to prepare and campaign for changes to the admissions process to make it fairer. All of these actions are career development work, and none of them can be effective alone.
We’ve been working toward an emancipatory career guidance for a number of years now. Increasingly, we’ve found that we are not alone in our thinking. We live in political times and people regularly run up against the limitations of individualistic ways of thinking about career. I hope that some of this resonates in Canada and I’d be really interested to hear more about what people are doing in your country to empower and emancipate people through career development.